Mini Grey describes how she turned 4.5 billion years of life on Earth into a stage show in a picture book.
‘This book has taken longer to make than any other book of mine,’ says Mini Grey. Opening The Greatest Show on Earth, out now from Puffin, and you can see just what a challenge she set herself. The book tells the story of life on Earth, all 4.5 billion years of it, from its fiery birth to the present day, measuring all the changes, evolution, and extinctions along the way. Ingeniously, the action is presented as a puppet show, staged by a troupe of insects in a shoebox theatre – who better to tell this story after all than creatures who have already been around for 300 million years? As they act out the story of Life on Earth on the main stage (with wonderful homemade costumes and props), details are presented in the wings while in the orchestra pit, ants unroll the Tape Measure of Time, one cm to one million years, little placards highlighting major changes. ‘I wanted to be able to tell the story fast enough that you could see the whole shebang’, says Mini. ‘Usually you’re just given a slice of it but I wanted the whole thing so that next time you go into a museum and find a new prehistoric animal, you’ll know whereabouts it fits on that timeline.’
Visiting museums is clearly one of Mini’s passions and she admits to having becoming ‘obsessed with pre-historic earth’. She is hugely knowledgeable and fascinated by all that scientists are discovering, ‘You find out about these creatures and just think “I don’t want to draw it because it’s so weird!” For example, there were these Pteranodon flying reptiles in the Triassic period, and they were enormous, a bit batlike but with massive heads – it’s just amazing that they could zoom around, some of them were 10 metres in wingspan. I was listening to a talk by Professor Michael Benton today on feathered dinosaurs, the more we find out about them, the more you realise that dinosaurs had every innovation that birds then used to be birds – light bones, feathers, incredibly efficient air breathing – dinosaurs had already done that.’ These discoveries delight her: ‘The joy in finding things out is that the more you find out, the more confused you get. It’s a bit like blowing up a balloon. As you blow it up, you’ve got more air in your balloon but the edge of the balloon – the edge of what you don’t know – has got bigger. You become aware of what you don’t know.’ She adds, ‘And that is exciting – to know that you don’t know something.’
As well as reading, her research included hours of listening to podcasts, while working. ‘When you’re making picture books, there are whole stages where you’re just colouring in, so a whole section of your brain is open for entertainment; for six months of the year, I can basically just listen to anything.’ She started listening to everything about prehistoric earth and has particular praise for Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time. ‘I’d never heard of the Ediacaran Biota before I heard the In Our Time programme about it; the one about the geology of the earth is mind blowing. I owe a debt of gratitude to Melvyn Bragg!’ She also found that scientists were very approachable to check questions, ‘If your scientist works at a university, you can always find an email address for them and they were really kind. For example, I wanted to know if the drawings I’d done of a sauropod’s lung were OK – I couldn’t find a picture of one anywhere.’ She contacted Professor Steve Brusatte, of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs fame, and ‘He said yes it’s fine’. The director of the Natural History Museum in Oxford offered to fact check her story board.
Getting it right, and distilling the information down to be as accessible as possible to the widest band of readers was vital, which is why she was so pleased to hit on the format for the book. She spent a lot of time trying to work out if it was publishable as a zigzag book, but then in 2019 a friend asked her to be part of an exhibition at Pollock’s Toy Museum for which artists were making their own version of a toy theatre. ‘I love making things out of card and working out how to make a Pollocks Toy Theatre was my dream job.’ She made the theatre and realised that format was just right for what she wanted to do. ‘It gives you these different areas in which to simultaneously tell the story, but main section is what you see first, centre stage. I get distracted sometimes reading non-fiction when everything is the same size on the page and you don’t know where to start. I wanted to make it really clear so that you know what to look at first. Actually, if you want to, you can ignore everything else and just read that middle section, where the main action is.’
She still feels she’s only grazed the surface of what there is to tell, so maybe there’ll be more Mini non-fiction to come? ‘When you have science meeting art, picture books meeting science, that’s a fantastic area and really exciting for making things.’ And, she adds, ‘I want to go back to university – I’d love to do evolutionary biology but through the power of puppetry – can you do a degree in that?’ If you can’t, The Greatest Show on Earth proves that you really should!
The Greatest Show on Earth is published by Puffin, 978-0241480830, £14.99 hbk.